Turning Pet Shots into a Profession

Photography: Grace Chon

Sometimes, the secret of building a successful photography business – even a part-time gig squeezed around a full-time job – isn’t hard to figure out.

Take good pictures. Treat your clients well. Understand that nothing is more important than making your buyers happy… and they’ll do the rest.

“I’m quite fortunate that I don’t look for clients — my clients find me!” Grace Chon, an art director and part-time photographer told us. “[I]f they’re really happy with you and their photos they’ll naturally tell their friends about their experience. And there’s nothing as valuable as great word-of-mouth referrals.”

For Grace, that’s true even though she does her photography work in one of the most competitive of fields – one that every camera-owner thinks they can do themselves.

Dogs that Tell Stories

She takes pictures of pets. Putting in around 30 hours a week in addition to her job with a Los Angeles advertising agency, Grace shoots what she calls “modern pet photography,” advertising her services through her site ShinePetPhotos.com. Rather than photographing pets in a studio with artificial lights and blank backgrounds, Grace shoots them in their own environment, surrounded by their own toys and in a context which, she says, tells their story.

“Shooting in a studio seems a bit sterile — it strips away so much of this story-telling opportunity.”

The result is great images that capture the pet’s personality, portray character and, most importantly, satisfy the client. Grace has had an image appear on a magazine cover, was invited to be a juror at LA County Fair’s dog photography competition – and has been shooting professionally for less than a year.

Some of that swift success may be due to Grace’s background. It might be easier to develop a photographic eye and understand the need to please buyers when you spend all day as an art director, putting together designs for clients like Wendy’s, Chandon, and yes, Pets Unlimited too. But there are a couple of other ingredients that have contributed to Grace’s success at turning what began as a hobby with a point-and-shoot camera aimed at a roommate’s two pets into a profitable passion.

The first, of course, is technical ability. Grace says that the best advice she can offer anyone thinking becoming a pet photographer is to “practice, practice and then practice some more.” Learning the basics will help you to understand the rules before you break them, and focusing, she says, is essential for good portraiture.

Animals are Incredible ‘Energy Readers’

But no less important is the fact that Grace loves what she does and the subjects she shoots, something that’s clearly essential when you’re doing it before starting work in the morning, after knocking off in the evening and instead of playing with friends at the weekends. Even before she took up pet photography, Grace had worked at the Philadelphia Zoo, interned at the University of Pennsylvania’s Emergency Animal Hospital, and had studied biology with the aim of going to veterinary school.

“I absolutely believe you have to love animals to be a successful pet photographer,” she says. “Animals are incredible ‘energy readers’ and know immediately when people like (or dislike) them.”

Her understanding of animals helps too. Unlike human subjects, pets can’t tell the photographer when they’re nervous, tired or just having a bad day. A pet photographer has to be able to read their emotions and know when to give a dog a break, she warns.

But even for an animal-lover with an understanding of both pets and what it takes to please their owners, taking pictures of furry friends can be difficult. When Grace started shooting professionally, she was shocked at how tiring it was to run after a dog, change positions quickly and spend time building trust. She often felt sore for days after a shoot.

And then there are the jobs that break your heart. Asked about the toughest shoot she had to do, Grace described a client who had called her in tears after discovering that her dog, Ella, had a terminal illness and had to be put to sleep.

“I normally book about two months in advance, but my client asked me to come over the next day,” Grace recalled. “Ella couldn’t move, so she was laid out on a blanket in the backyard. The family members were in tears throughout the shoot and it was really hard for me to remain composed while I photographed this beautiful dog. I was successful at not crying in front of the family — but the minute the shoot was over and I left their yard I kind of lost it.”

Ella was put to sleep the next day. Her pictures, shot by Grace, are still available for viewing here.

6 comments for this post.

  1. Embassy Pro Books Said:

    Thats a great natural photo of the dog!

  2. Fotografo Said:

    Nice tip.

    Photography touch feelings and people always love their pets.

  3. SHUTT3R SG Said:

    What a great post, both from a business/marketing perspective and for the animal lovers out there...checked out Grace's website too, and the images brought tears to my eyes. Very inspiring, thanks.

  4. Jennifer Said:

    Thanks for sharing this...Something my parents are always pushing me to do is pet portraiture. After very suddenly losing our much, much beloved cat earlier this year...Well, the many pictures I have of him (probably near a thousand, if not more) mean so very much to me (even the bad ones). They helped me get through a terrible hurt, loss, and shock; I think every pet owner should have at least half-a-dozen terrific images of their furry pal. Someday, unfortunately, they'll appreciate it more than they can possibly imagine.


    /off soapbox to grab tissues

  5. Emilee Said:

    I've recently begun pet photography as well. It is so important to me to have great pictures of my dog, you never know when something can happen to your pet. My parents and family keep pushing me to do people portraiture, but I'm just not passionate about that. Thanks for the great post, Grace is AWESOME!!

  6. Tim Said:

    Great post!

    Pet photography can be very lucrative, especially if you're good with Fido and Muffy. A friend of mine actually switched from wedding photography to pet portraits and made not quite as much money, but had a much easier working environment. I worked with a bear a couple years ago and it was actually a lot of fun once you get over the intimidation factor!

    Dig the blog!

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